7.09.2014

Here's Johnny

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He has yet to throw a pass in the NFL by Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel is already a lightning rod for controversy.  And why not?  Flashy play in college, partying hearty with coeds, and oversleeping Peyton Manning's football camp all make for good sound bites on ESPN. 

Last month he was unapologetic about his social calendar, telling reporters:

"I'm not gonna go to change who I am for anybody. I'm growing up and continuing to learn from my mistakes and trying not to make the same ones over and over again. But am I gonna live in a shell, or am I just going to hide from everybody and not do anything? I don't think that's the way I should live my life and I'm not going to do it. I am here, I am very committed to football, I'm committed to my job, but on the weekends I'm going to enjoy my time off. I mean, I think I deserve it."

As you can imagine, this has not gone over well with die-hard fans, who wonder aloud about someone popping off like this who hasn't proven himself, gotten a Super Bowl ring, or even earned one "W" as a starter.  As fans, we're free to express our disapproval and worse; after all, we're paying his multi-million dollar salary.

Maybe it's the money, or the youthful cockiness, or the smug grin.  But maybe it's also this unwritten compact that we have with our hero athletes: we expect you to work 100 percent of the time, because that's what it takes to bring home the championship, and that's what we spend all of our time/money/heartache on, is urging our team on to the ultimate prize.  

Actually, I think that's a lot of it.  At the elite levels, it really does take absolute commitment - to train, to learn, and to focus - to win it all.  And, for the fan, it really is about winning it all; sure, we like close games and cheer for players and plays, but at the end of the day the only thing that is really satisfying is the ring.  Put those two things together and you can see why we adore those players who get this and vilify those players who aren't all-in.

Being great in any field requires a similarly singular devotion.  And that's a rare trait.  It's not just that there aren't that many Johnny Manziels out there, just like there aren't that many who are supremely gifted at ballet or molecular research or financial derivatives.  It's that, even among that very small universe of really talented people, there's an even smaller universe of people willing to leverage that unique talent to become truly transcendent.  

Not that you or I would necessarily fault them.  We all strive to live balanced lives.  We want to have fulfilling jobs but we also want to be good parents, spouses, and friends.  We want to advance in our careers but we also want to pursue hobbies and enjoy leisure.  We want to climb the ladder of success but we're striving for progress on many other fronts as well.

But for a small subset of humanity, there lies both the innate talent to do something great and the opportunity to hone that talent to actually achieve that greatness.  Rare is the bird who has both the talent and the drive to actually make it, but when they do the world is changed forever.  It could be the athlete who wills his team to victory, or the researcher who cracks the elusive code to a great medical advance, or the economic genius whose insights lift millions out of poverty. 

So boo Johnny Manziel all you want.  Your desire for him to be uniquely great is a good desire.  If he succeeds, we'll remember it for the rest of our lives.  And if he fails from not trying, we'll be cheated out of something truly special.  Just remember just how hard it is to be truly great. 
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